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The Best Thing About ‘Red Sparrow’ Has Almost Nothing to Do with ‘Red Sparrow’

And a few other observations about Jennifer Lawrence’s new sexy, silly spy thriller

Ever since 2010’s acclaimed indie Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence has been an actress who’s split the difference between Hollywood glamour and dorky, Midwestern self-effacement. Lawrence grew up in Kentucky, and no matter how glamorous she’s gotten, she’s retained an understanding that, deep down, celebrity is kinda stupid. Her performances are often terrific, but even when her films aren’t memorable, her public appearances always are.

This is a woman who famously face-planted while walking up the steps to accept her Best Actress prize — the highest honor in her profession — and then just laughed it off, jokingly telling the crowd, which gave her a standing ovation, “You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell, and that’s really embarrassing, but thank you.”

But she has plenty chill no matter the occasion. When she was on Seth Meyers last year to promote Mother!, she took a swig of wine that he had provided, slumped back in her chair and declared, “I can’t sit up straight up anymore. I don’t care if I look bad.” In 2016, she told a great story on The Graham Norton Show about going up to Harrison Ford and J.J. Abrams at a party and realizing, to her humiliation, that they had no idea who she was. It probably didn’t help that she was doing this when she greeted them:

Jennifer Lawrence Dance GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Lawrence is back out on the road to bang the drum for Red Sparrow, her very mediocre spy thriller that I remember almost nothing about. But I loved seeing her doing promotion for it. There was the lovably goofy faux-royalty wave she was rocking before one of the film’s premieres. And her announcement on Marc Maron’s podcast that she switched off the acclaimed Phantom Thread after three minutes: “I’m sorry to anybody who loved that movie. … I mean, is it just about clothes? Is he kind of like a narcissistic sociopath, and he’s an artist, so every girl falls in love with him because he makes her feel bad about herself, and that’s the love story?”

You can argue that Lawrence’s real-girl demeanor is its own kind of mystique — or shtick — but it doesn’t feel manufactured to me. Deep down, she still seems like that young woman from Kentucky who can’t quite believe all this crazy fame has happened to her. She’s going to enjoy it while it lasts. And I am, too.

Here are a few other takeaways from Red Sparrow:

#1. Never try dyeing your hair like characters do in movies.

In Red Sparrow, Lawrence plays Dominika, a Russian ballerina who becomes a spy assigned to seduce an American agent, Nash (Joel Edgerton). As part of that process, she has to do something you see a lot in the movies: She colors her hair using some product she buys at the store. I’ve never tried changing my hair color, but spy films always make it look really easy — just pour the stuff on your head and, presto, you’re suddenly a blonde or brunette.

Turns out, this isn’t at all accurate.

Village Voice film critic April Wolfe spent part of her review actually explaining what’s incorrect about that cinematic shorthand. “For the men who have never had at-home-hair-dye disasters,” she advises, “here are some tips: You can’t successfully bleach your hair blonde with store-bought box dye; long and/or thick hair requires multiple boxes; you cannot, under any circumstances, go swimming in a chlorinated pool after you bleach.”

Oh yeah, that’s something else Dominika does: She swims at the same pool as Nash to spark his interest. In real life, though, he’d be too freaked out by what the pool would do to her dye job to be allured. Don’t they teach you that in spy school?

#2. Joel Edgerton is a good actor who is also completely forgettable.

Edgerton has been in many good movies, and he often gives very good performances. And yet, it always takes me a minute to remember what those movies were. Once I hop onto IMDb, then my memory gets jogged: Oh right, Zero Dark Thirty, Loving, It Comes at Night, Black Mass, The Gift

I’ve been a fan of his since seeing him in Animal Kingdom, the great 2010 Australian crime thriller — but it’s part of Edgerton’s problem as an onscreen presence that, in fact, I’d actually seen him years earlier in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. He was so unmemorable as Uncle Owen in those Star Wars prequels that he never really registered.

The actor’s Edgerton-ness continues in Red Sparrow, where he plays Nash as a smart, dedicated American spy who wants to save Dominika from the clutches of her evil Russian handlers. His performance is good — perfectly good — but nothing more. Case in point: It’s hard to remember anything he specifically does in Red Sparrow.

There’s a grizzled, handsome blankness that Edgerton brings to his roles that keeps him from popping off the screen. After Animal Kingdom, he was touted as a Next Big Thing in Hollywood — he had the looks and slow-burn intensity that made him seem like a star-in-the-making. But that transformation never quite happened. Instead, he’s a solid character actor, without the charisma needed to be an A-lister. (He doesn’t grab you the way Lawrence does, for example.) I really like the guy — there’s a no-nonsense authenticity to him — but he always leaves me wishing he could bring a little more to everything he does.

He’s the ultimate replacement-level movie star.

#3. You probably shouldn’t become a spy for the sex. But it can definitely be part of the job.

Red Sparrow has a decent amount of sex in it, and of course, anyone who grew up on James Bond probably assumes that, beyond the gadgets and international intrigue, one of the big selling points of the spy business is the copious amounts of fucking.

Here, though — unlike with the hair dye — there might be some truth to this cinematic myth. In 2013, Foreign Policy reported on a presentation given by intelligence historian H. Keith Melton at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Melton explained that the Cold War was full of sexual traps — or, as it’s known in the business, “honey traps” or “honey pots” — to get powerful people into compromising positions. And while Red Sparrow focuses on sexy female spy seductresses, Melton said that men were just as capable of springing a honey trap:

Markus Wolf, a former head of East German intelligence, was one of the masters. His idea was to dispatch male agents, known as “Romeos,” to targets like NATO headquarters with the mission of picking up female secretaries. He later told Melton that a good Romeo had three critical traits: He was likeable, he knew how to make himself the center of attention, and he listened well, which made women enjoy talking to him.

If a Romeo wants to recruit women, Wolf told Melton once, “you don’t go to them, have them come to you. You become the center of the party, you buy the drinks, you tell the jokes. You’re the life of the party. She will come to you. And then naturally that will make it easier.”

Seems like Wolf had more in common with Neil Strauss than any of these guys.

Anyway, apparently there’s a lot of sex that goes on inside spy agencies, too. Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA operations officer, wrote a piece for The New Republic in 2013 in which he laid out all the covert humping that was happening when agents weren’t busy protecting America. “When I was in the agency,” he wrote, “my colleagues were amused, occasionally disappointed, but never shocked when married officers were discovered cavorting with their secretaries or other co-workers at the office, in parking lots, hotels and safe-houses — which, of course, are not supposed to be used for trysts.”

And if you’re wondering if real-life spies look like Jennifer Lawrence (or Daniel Craig), the answer is… sometimes. The International Spy Museum’s Vince Houghton told Vanity Fair in 2015, “Sometimes you want people who can recruit [assets] using their looks. And I don’t mean via sex — we frown upon that in the United States. They use sex a lot more in the Soviet side and East Germany. … But it’s much easier to get someone to like you and work with you if you are good-looking and suave and you have the ability to kind of psychologically get into their head a little bit.”

#4. ‘Red Sparrow’ shall forever be known as ‘Whore School’.

I still can’t shake what Dominika yells at her evil uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) after he ships her off to the Sparrow School to become a sex spy: “You sent me to whore school!”

I’m not the only one who found that line hilarious either: Everyone from the New York Post to Rolling Stone to National Review has joyfully quoted it in their reviews, and it’s quickly become a meme.

In case you’re wondering, “whore school” is a phrase used in the Jason Matthews book on which the movie is based. (In fact, it shows up three times in the novel.) Much of the early going in Red Sparrow is dedicated to showing how Sparrow School trains young recruits to debase themselves in order to become sexually desirable to their targets. And wouldn’t you know it: Dominika is really good at taking off her clothes and being alluring.

But what’s funniest about the “whore school” line is that, in the movie, it’s meant to be this dark, shocking moment in which Dominika realizes the depth of the depravity she’s had to endure to stay alive. But c’mon: Red Sparrow is so trashy that it’s a little disingenuous for the movie to be shocked, shocked, shocked at the treatment that awaits Dominika.

Maybe the movie would’ve done better if the studio had just been honest and called it Whore School.